Alex Gibney: Steve Jobs Had the ‘Focus of a Monk — Without the Empathy’


Speaking to an audience this week after they just saw his latest documentary about Steve Jobs, Alex Gibney said that even if the enigmatic, contradictory businessman hadn’t died, he still would have made his film.

But it was worldwide mourning, a “global wake,” as Diane Sawyer puts it on a newscast featured early in the film, that compelled Gibney to tell Jobs’s story: The makeshift memorials were set up outside Apple stores in Soho, Tokyo, and California hours after news of his death from complications due to pancreatic cancer in October 2011, and a few weeks later, many Apple stores closed for a few hours during the rush of iPhone 4S sales so employees could watch a “celebration of Steve Jobs” on TV.

“It is true that the imperative for me to make the film was, why were so many people who didn’t know Steve Jobs weeping when he left?,” Gibney said Thursday night at the Crosby Hotel in Soho. “Could I have been motivated to make it [if he were alive]? Maybe, but it seemed like a moment had passed when he died.”

When Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine debuted at South by Southwest’s film festival back in March, one Apple executive criticized it as mean-spirited and inaccurate. (It hits theaters and on-demand September 4.)

The devotion Jobs demanded is told by several former Apple employees, from Bob Belleville — who says in the film that he lost his wife and family over the several years he worked at Apple but remains a great admirer of Jobs, and proud of his work on the Apple II — to Andy Grignon, who received a threat straight out of a mafia film when he told Jobs he was going to the rival mobile tech company Palm after successfully (and stressfully) launching the first iPhone.

Gibney’s Jobs doc comes on the heels of his much-praised one on Scientology, and the parallels between the two are there, if only on the surface.

“There is a cult of Mac,” Gibney says. “And there are certain parallels with the Church of Scientology. I’m not aware, though, of people showing up, Apple technicians, showing up on doorsteps with GoPros on their foreheads trying to intimidate you in that way.

“There is a passion for the person and the products that’s so deep that any criticism can’t be tolerated, and that I do find interesting. Why should that be? Can’t we discuss how pitifully paid the workers are in China and how bad the environment is there, even as we may admire some of the technological aspects of the Apple products? But there seems to be a need to deify that stuff in a way that brooks all criticism, and that does approach the religious.”

The mother of Jobs’s daughter Lisa, Chrisann Brennan, appears in the film to talk about their early relationship and how it became ugly just as she became pregnant. Later, Gibney shows through court filings that Jobs only provided a $500 monthly child-support payment after being faced with a paternity test — even as Apple’s value skyrocketed after going public in the early Eighties.

Gibney, however, didn’t get to talk with Laurene Jobs, his widow and the mother of his three other children. She was the one person he wanted to interview but couldn’t.

“When I started the film, the first person I reached out to was Laurene Jobs, and it seemed like she was going to talk or at least we were going to engage in a conversation and then it shut down,” Gibney says. “And then I learned later that she reached out to a lot of people and asked them not to talk to me, which created a certain number of problems. And I probably would have been interested in talking to [Apple Chief Design Officer] Jony Ive.”

Gibney also shared the answer to an oft-asked question — what would he ask Jobs if he were still alive?

“What are your values? Please express your values,” Gibney replied. “That, I would have liked to learn from him in a kind of honest and straightforward way, if he had been willing to do it — and people like Steve Jobs rarely are, when you’re a filmmaker or a person in the press trying to get to them to speak honestly on the subject.”

Gibney’s most pointed comments came when asked about Apple’s decision — under Jobs’ second tenure as its leader — to dissolve any philanthropic projects.

“I think it’s reprehensible,” Gibney says of Apple’s decision not to give to charity as one of the most profitable companies in the world. “Over his career, he mocked Bill Gates for being a kind of Tupperware salesman and not representing ‘values’ that he felt were important, and yet Bill Gates in his later years is doing a lot to improve the of all of us by putting his money where his mouth is, so I don’t know where to take that.

“[Jobs] really felt… he said it straightforward: ‘Giving away money is a waste of time.’ It’s hard for me to understand that. He felt his focus was to make great products, but it was the focus of a monk without the empathy. He wasn’t interested in that other stuff. His job was to make great products, fuck everything else.”

Gibney joked about the upcoming Danny Boyle film, simply titled Steve Jobs, that bases its story off the 2011 biography by Walter Isaacson of the same name — “is there a feature film coming out?” — but that film, in theaters on October 9, follows this documentary and the 2013 film Jobs, perhaps most memorable for just how much Ashton Kutcher resembled a young Steve Jobs. That’ three Jobs films in the four years since his death.

While his documentary’s critical of the Apple leader, Gibney touched on what he thought was Jobs’s greatest talent — selling his consumers on their own personal narrative with Apple products:

“I think Steve Jobs’s great talent was as a storyteller, but still it’s this discomfiting that he’s gone, not being able to tell us those stories.”

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine starts showing September 4 at Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Cinema, and is available on demand.